Oct 23, 2021

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where I for one am very, very ready for the weekend.

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,588 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: How AI is rising up the ranks of the military

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From programs that can process a vast amount of data for intelligence gathering to the future of autonomous weapons, AI is becoming key to our operations — and our international competition.

Why it matters: Military dominance in the future won't be decided just by the size of a nation's army, but the quality of its algorithms.

  • The U.S. still leads on integrating AI into defense, but some competitors like China have advantages of their own — and they're catching up.

Driving the news: The National Counterintelligence and Security Center said in a new paper published Friday that China and Russia are using legal and illegal methods to undermine and overtake U.S. dominance in critical industries including AI and autonomous systems, my Axios colleague Zach Basu writes.

  • Officials warned in the paper that China has "the might, talent, and ambition" to surpass the U.S. in AI in the next decade.
  • "I don't necessarily agree that China is ahead," says Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and a co-author of the new book "The Age of AI." "But they want to be ahead and they're investing heavily to do so."

Yes, but: So is the U.S., particularly in defense.

  • The Defense Department plans to spend $874 million for AI-related technologies. It also aims to increase the number of AI-related projects to more than 600, up 50% from current efforts.
  • "I think you should think about this as us taking science, research, innovation and bringing it to the warfighter, to the marine, to the airmen, the sailor and the soldier so we can maintain that superiority," Sen. Mark Kelly( D-Ariz.) said at a recent Axios event.

Between the lines: Intelligence gathering and analysis is one of the fields where AI can make the biggest difference now for defense, says George Hoyem, managing partner at In-Q-Tel (IQT), the venture investment unit for the U.S. intelligence community.

  • IQT, in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command, invested in an AI company called Primer.
  • Its tool, Primer Command, uses natural language processing and computer vision to capture and analyze vast content from news and social media to help analysts quickly identify novel info and filter out duplications or suspected misinformation.

What's next: The big question facing the U.S. and other advanced militaries is how far they should go in the development of autonomous weapons — systems that could theoretically pick out and fire on targets on their own.

  • Flashback: UN experts reported that last year drones under the control of the Libyan government appeared to automatically target and attack opposing forces, in what may be one of the first documented uses of autonomous weapons.
  • U.S. military officials have stressed the importance of keeping human oversight — but the faster and smarter AI becomes, the thinner the leash of human control may become.
  • Meanwhile, competitors are making their own advancements.

Context: Thousands of AI scientists and a growing number of countries have called for a ban on the development of these systems, citing what Max Tegmark, the head of the Future of Life Institute, says is the risk of proliferation beyond the battlefield.

The other side: In a report released earlier this year, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence called on President Biden to reject an international ban.

Read the rest

2. Evolution in action

A tuskless elephant. Photo: Wildlife SOS/Barcroft India via Getty Images

Pressures from poaching may have led to the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants, according to a Science study — but the process seems to be killing males.

Why it matters: The research shows just how rapidly evolution can take place under extraordinary circumstances, but at a broader cost to the population.

What they found: Elephants were intensively poached for their ivory tusks during the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, but the few members of the species who are naturally born without tusks were largely able to escape the killing.

  • What resulted was evolution in action — tuskless elephants outcompeted those with tusks under the pressure of poaching, and they were more likely to pass on their genes to descendants.
  • Over time, elephants without tusks became increasingly common, in a textbook example of Darwinian natural selection.

The catch: The researchers found that the genetic mutation that causes tusklessness appears to be lethal to males.

  • As a result, the gender balance among elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where the researchers did their work, is getting increasingly out of balance, with worrying long-term consequences for the population.

The bottom line: "Selection always comes at a cost — and that cost is lives," Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University and a co-author of the paper, told the New York Times.

3. The rise of vegan food in unexpected places

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Vegan cuisine is popping up in two places it wasn't present before: fine dining and fast food, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

Why it matters: The single biggest way an individual can reduce their carbon footprint is to eat less meat and dairy. Now, the popularization of meatless meals could help curb meat consumption in the United States.

What's happening: Plant-based diets are hitting both ends of the food spectrum, from high-end eateries to fast food joints.

  • New York's three-Michelin star Eleven Madison Park made waves this summer when it reopened after its pandemic shutdown with a fully plant-based menu, at the same steep price of $335 per person.
  • "The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways," chef Daniel Humm wrote in his reopening letter. "It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose."
  • Plus, a slew of fast-casual and fast-food restaurants are now serving vegan alternatives. Fuku — Momofuku's fast-food sister restaurant — has chicken-less nuggets. Starbucks sells a breakfast sandwich with Impossible meat.

"The world is just really changing now," says Doug McNish, a vegan chef and author of several cookbooks.

  • "As more and more people adopt this way of living, you see people of affluence — whether that's thought leaders or influencers or celebrities or entrepreneurs — becoming plant-based," says McNish.
  • "And then it just spreads like wildfire."
4. Alarm sounded on climate's economic risks

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The top U.S. financial coordinating organization, created in the wake of the 2008 recession, declared that it views "climate-related financial risks as an emerging threat to the financial stability of the United States," Axios' Andrew Freedman writes.

Why it matters: The report from the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) marks the start of what's likely to be a long process of identifying how climate change could destabilize the American economy and what actions could bolster resilience.

The big picture: The major risks come from disruptions that could occur while transitioning from a fossil fuel-intensive energy system, as well as the likelihood of physical damage from extreme weather events, sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change.

Details: The FSOC is forming two committees to help regulators better understand climate change-related risks.

  • The report urges a forward-leaning posture, stating: "Council members recognize that the need for better data and tools cannot justify inaction, as climate-related financial risks will become more acute if not addressed promptly."

The bottom line: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who chairs the FSOC, warned panel members that it would be "foolish" to confuse an "emerging threat" with a "hypothetical one."

  • "It does not require a vivid imagination to see how climate change could threaten the financial system," she said.
5. Worthy of your time

The metaverse is bad (Ian Bogost — The Atlantic)

  • Why Facebook and other tech company's visions of a VR future badly misread what a virtual existence would really be like.

How working from home could change where innovation happens (Christopher Mims — Wall Street Journal)

  • Remote work is a "general-purpose technology," and like others in that category, its effect will be transformative — and not just in work.

This protein predicts a brain’s future after traumatic injury (Max Levy — Wired)

  • The dream — or the nightmare, if you're an NFL executive — of a blood test for brain injuries is coming true.

Why we place too much trust in machines (Chris Baraniuk — BBC Future)

  • And why we probably shouldn't start letting them pick their targets.
6. 1 musical AI thing: Finishing Beethoven's symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven, looking characteristically chipper. Photo: The Print Collector via Getty Images

A team of computer scientists and musicologists have used machine learning to complete a symphony Beethoven left unfinished before his death.

Why it matters: A new Beethoven drop nearly 200 years after the German composer's death is a big enough deal, but the achievement shows how AI can be used to adapt and create classical music.

What's happening: Beethoven had only completed a few notes and fragmented melodies of his 10th symphony before his death in 1827 at age 56.

  • To mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, the German telecommunications company Telekom put together a team of experts to try to finish it with the help of AI.

How it works: An algorithm was trained on sketches and musical notes from Beethoven, as well as scores from his contemporaries.

  • The training allowed the AI to predict how the 10th symphony might progress, in much the same way email systems can now predict your messages as you write them.
  • Each day, the researchers sent musical passages generated by the AI to composer Walter Werzowa, who selected the ones he thought sounded most like the great composer.
  • The final symphony — a blend of Beethoven's ideas, an AI's generative power, and a human composer's judgment, was released earlier this month in time for Beethovenfest in Bonn.

The bottom line: AI still can't create on its own — and certainly not on the genius level of Ludwig van — but it's on its way to becoming a valuable tool for human creativity.